We sit down and chat with one half of Smith & Sinclair, whose alcoholic jelly sweets are already stocked in the likes of Harrods, Harvey Nichols and Selfridges. We discuss the initial start-up process and the trials and errors over mocha and eggs at Soho House.
Hey Melanie, let the story unfold….
Okay, lets start from the beginning. I used to be in performance arts but was much more interested in the production side of things and after producing a jazz festival for 2 years, recognised a gap between being in an experience and consuming an experience.
Over the last few years a new category started forming which crossed over the arts, food, drink and play, a cross-cultural hybrid with players like Secret Cinema, Gingerline and Bompas & Parr at the forefront. The environments being created for adults to play were all consuming, but there was no tangible source of longevity beyond the events. This is why we created Smith & Sinclair. We wanted the physical environment to match what was being consumed, taken away and re-engaged with at a later date.
Our first product on market is a range of edible cocktails. Essentially, large fruit pastilles (no liquid centre) which are deconstructed in the same way as a liquid cocktail: Spirit, mixer, garnish. We have eight flavours in our range which include Whisky, Rum, Gin and Vodka.
The idea for the Pastilles came from a series of our own dating nights which were focused around the idea of ‘adult play’. We hosted them in a bar in East London and the point was to distract everyone from social constructs to facilitate an environment in which people could be more natural (as no one can hide their competitive edge). What we found very early on was that the minute a guest held a drink, they could no longer play with the games and it disrupted the flow. We needed an alternative ‘ice breaker’ and didn’t want to lose alcohol (it was a dating night after all) so we subverted the idea and built an ‘adult pick ‘n’ mix’ counter.
Not only could guests indulge in our alcoholic delights at the event we got them to take away a ‘gooodie bag’ to prolong the experience but also provide a tool which encapsulated what the nights stood for. It was a great marketing plan; what we hadn’t anticipated was how many people would come for the unusual products over the theme of the night, which were the games.
We couldn’t knock a winner so we looked into other environments which would suit the pastilles and the idea of ‘edible alcohol’. We sold the product at a couple different nights, a female members club and eventually got a stall on Berwick St in Soho.
Was it a success?
Sandwiched between a fruit and sandwich stall we were pedalling the alcoholic sweets all day for the 3 weeks before Xmas and took £3,000. We went away, built a website and had an order for 20,000 pastilles within the week from Imbibe live, who had seen our stall, which kicked off the whole business.
So how did you manufacture 20 thousand of them?
We had been making the Pastilles for market in my flat, which had its limitations, considering alcohol steam triggered the carbon monoxide alarm.
We had to be resourceful 20,000 pastilles equates to 400,000g. So we researched all the venues near us which wouldn’t have been using their kitchen full time; including churches, synagogues and some schools. Once we successfully completed the 20,000 we then needed a more permanent site and found where we are now, which is more than unusual but fits us just great.
What was your typical day?
In the beginning it was just me and Emile (my co-founder). I would wake up around 6.30 and start packing the pastilles Emile had made the night before, Emile would start cooking again around 9am, I would be doing admin from around 11-2 and then we would have an event/ market/ meetings until around 8.30pm, we would cook until around 12 and start over again. It was hardcore and still is – but in a very different way.
Were you able to expand and have a team working with you?
For the first year we used freelancers a lot to support packing, events, sales. We don’t take on unpaid interns unless it is a direct course requirement. We now have Hannah, who is our Head of Strategy (full time) and has been a fundamental asset to our growth and a team of around 12 part-time staff who are absolutely fab.
Did any disasters happen during?
Of course! The biggest disasters probably still stand as our earlier mistakes. Whilst cooking the 20,000 pastilles, we were working on a batch of 4,000 in a school kitchen which was closed for Easter break. On the 5th night we hadn’t been told the hallway was having maintenance work and our dehumidifiers were turned off, resulting in a lot of panic and the loss of around 2,000.
Are you looking at going overseas?
In the future, absolutely.
For now, we are focusing on the UK and our opportunities in hospitality in addition to a summer in Ibiza, which we are all very excited about, being a hub of experience and indulgence. We post internationally from our online portals and would be looking to grow internationally with our hospitality and travel clients. Our strategy in the short term is to focus on events and online and to continue growing the business year on year by 100%.
So no exit strategy just yet then?
We of course have considered how we would want to eventually exit but that is not the focus whilst growing our business. There are a number of cross cultural lifestyle brands which have a wide portfolio, where we could see ourselves fitting in the future, but for now we are building a brand that is recognisable for its quality, internal and external ethics and above all, the experience.
Did you have an initial business plan?
In the beginning it was about doing, not stopping and planning, we wanted to see if the product was received positively and got traction. We went for around 18 months without a business plan and got the business to a steady point at which we could then really take a step back and review where we wanted to see the future of the business. We do now have a plan, which is constantly evolving.
Do people get this concept?
What we are doing is very much at the forefront of what is happening, we are creating consumable products which create and enhance experiences. People do get it (we’ve sold close to 500,000 pastilles in the last 2 years) but it’s down to how we now grow the marketing model to educate consumers and invite them in to what we’re doing.
What about PR?
We have had some fantastic PR since the beginning of the company and have worked with an amazing company call Full Fat PR. In regards to marketing and advertising, we always need a direct ROI with anything we do and therefore have focused on brand partnerships as a way of tapping into our direct target market.
Finally what is your one staple tip?
Persist and invest in your team. We have had to overcome a number of hurdles from starting a company and the number one thing that has kept moral is ensuring everyone is fighting for the same goal and enjoying the rollercoaster of a journey!